University baulk from setting up chairs for religious studies in Hinduism.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: In an act that smacks not only of extreme stupidity and buckling meekly to pressure from liberal academics, but to a sense of acute, befuddled paranoia to study of Hinduism, akin to an unknown fear of extra-terrestrials, the University of California, Irvine (UCI) has spurned two endowed chairs worth a total of $3 million gifted by the non-profit Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF), based in Chatsworth, California.
What’s more, the confused and beleaguered UCI, who seem to be in total chaos as far as due diligence on rules and regulations are concerned on endowed chairs, has declared it’s going to review two other separate gifts of endowed chairs on studies on Jainism and Sikhism by the same non-profit, worth another $3 million combined.
This, after they accepted the gifts last year.
It’s perhaps for the first time that a high-profile multi-million dollar gift by Indian Americans or an organization by Indian Americans is being treated like trash infected by bugs, by an educational institution in the US.
What’s more, UCI has not even apologized to DCF for their about-turn, or for tarnishing and humiliating the reputation and image of DCF and the Indian Americans associated with the generous gifts. DCF has about 1,000 registered members in the US, comprising mostly of Indians and Indian Americans who have a keen interest to promote Hinduism and religious texts of India in America.
The four endowed chairs gifted by the DCF to UCI, and accepted by the latter previously, are:
- The Thakkar Family – Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies. Signed in January 2015; worth $1.5 million.
- The Swami Vivekananda-DCF Presidential Chair in Modern India Studies. Signed in August 2015, with $1.5 million gift.
- The Dhan Kaur Sahota Presidential Chair in Sikh Studies by Drs. Harvinder and Asha Sahota. Signed in August, 2015; worth $1.5 million.
- The Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies by Drs. Meera and Jasvant Modi. Signed in August, 2015; worth $1.5 million.
UCI had even hosted a grand celebration on May 9, 2015, to mark the establishment of the ‘Thakkar Family-DCF Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilizational Studies’, at the School of Humanities. The Dean of Humanities at UCI, Dr. Georges Van Den Abbeele, hosted the event, attended by over 100 guests, including Ambassador Venkatesan Ashok, Consul General of India – San Francisco.
On that occasion last year, Abbeele had said in his remarks, “This new endowed chair anchors UCI’s religious studies program by permanently securing faculty-led research and instruction in one of the world’s most influential religions i.e. Hinduism”. The idea of the four chairs was to create a unique “India Center” focused on the Indic civilization and its contribution to the world.
At that meet, Prof. Jack Miles, Director of Religious Studies at UCI, had expressed his excitement at the prospect of promoting the study of Indian art and architecture.
Prof. Shiva Bajpai, the President of DCF, an eminent scholar himself of traditional Indian history, had observed at that meet that the philosophy of DCF is ‘the concord rather than the clash of civilizations – Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti (“Truth is one, the wise ones speak of it by many names.”).
Drs. Irma and Ushakant Thakkar, who donated $1 million to the endowed chair – with the other $500,000 coming from fundraisers held by the DCF – had spoken of their philanthropic aspirations.
“Together, we want to establish an eminent India Center, the best of them in the United States, at UC Irvine. We Indians have created over 700 temples of worship in America, now won’t you join us in making temples of education, too,” said Dr. Ushakant Thakkar, an award-winning physician specializing in nephrology.
Three months ago, starting from December, 2015, several hundred liberal academics, wonks, and some graduate students began to badger UCI on the four endowed chairs given as a gift, with the argument that the chairs would likely promote and propagate Hindutva and eclipse liberal studies. The university, it seems, has buckled under that pressure, without taking into consideration the academic richness and diversity the four endowed chairs would have given not only to the institution and its students, but to America too.
It’s easy enough to argue, as was done by those who pressured UCI to change their decision, that perhaps right leaning academics who would finally take up the chairs and teach students would inculcate Hindutva values of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other such groups. Perhaps that might have turned out to be true. But UCI would really never know if that was indeed going to be the case as was alleged, or it would have meant some excellent teachings of the ancient religious scriptures from India, as was intended by DCF all the while.
Indeed, UCI’s turnabout seems to suggest America’s new refuge in the principles of extreme politicians like Donald Trump: ban, ostracize or bar all those who are not in tune with one’s set of ideological principles.
True inclusiveness and diversity is only when one has the opportunity to study all facets of ancient and modern civilizations, from the perspectives of all religions. It’s not enough to set up divinity schools at Harvard and Yale espousing Christian faith and teachings. To exclude and minimize in the process the teachings of Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism on the basis of allegations by moderates and liberals who are afraid of their own standing in the universe, is an act of intolerance itself.
If Harvard University had showed the same cowardice as shown by UCI, it would have rejected in 2005 the $20 million gift from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud of Saudi Arabia for creating Islamic Studies on the university campus. But Harvard had more foresight that UCI, and likely always will.
A panel set up by UCI to review the gift of endowed chairs by DCF, said in a damning report: “When comparing the publicly stated views and intents of the DCF with other community based donors, however, we find that the DCF is unusually explicit and prescriptive on appropriate disciplinary formations, what constitutes good or acceptable scholarship, and, indeed, what constitutes good or acceptable scholars.”
It made explicit its fears that DCF would likely control who would occupy the chairs: “The committee deems the DCF’s statements targeting faculty based on race, ethnicity, religion, and nationality antithetical to UCI’s mission of creating a safe academic environment that is conducive to sharing and critically examining knowledge and values,” adding that DCF’s views would clash with UCI’s “core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion, toleration, and respect.”
Abbeele, in a statement, seemed to acknowledge UCI’s failure to do its due diligence and to meekly succumb to external pressures: “As we continue working with external partners, I acknowledge the need to improve opportunities for widespread consultation, and take full responsibility for working with HEC, with the academic senate, and with our development operations to improve these processes as recommended in the report.”
In a phone interview to The American Bazaar, on Monday, the executive vice president of DCF, Kalyan Viswanathan, who previously worked as Global Practice Head, for Tata Consultancy Services, and is now based in Dallas, Texas, said that the top three office bearers of DCF, including himself, Dr. Thakkar and Dr. Bajpai, had no links to the RSS whatsoever. The decision of UCI has come as a deep shock to them, he said.
“We don’t deserve to be smeared, as the faculty members (of UCI) have smeared us,” said Viswanathan. “It’s calumny, their accusations. We (DCF) are being vilified, and they are demonizing the organization,” he added.
Asked what was DCF going to do if UCI decides to keep the chairs on Jainism and Sikhism but exclude the chairs on Hinduism, upon further review, Viswanathan said DCF has yet to take a decision, but added as an afterthought, “Ok, we will withdraw the money…we will go find more hospitable environment.”
He added: “UCI and all those who have attacked us have criminalized an act of giving.”
Asked how much of the protests against the endowed chairs was directed at also prime minister Narendra Modi and against the BJP government in India, and RSS and other far right Hindutva organizations, Viswanathan said that DCF had nothing to do with Modi, although he acknowledges that Thakkar had met Modi when the prime minister came calling in Silicon Valley to address the diaspora.
“Modi is not popular among academics. They don’t like him. They have petitioned against him and the Hindutva movement. But really, this gift of DCF to UCI had nothing to do with Modi or BJP, or RSS,” said Viswanathan.
Asked how Dr. Thakkar was taking the decision of UCI, Viswanathan said that “Dr. Thakkar is hurt that his personal reputation has been sullied.”
DCF in the past has promoted several other Hinduism related projects, most of them at UCI: they funded “Swami Vivekananda Visiting faculty in Hindu Studies” at UCI, at a cost of $120,000 dollars annually, occupied by Prof. Rita Sherma; funded “Swami Vivekananda Fellowship in Dharma Studies” UCI for two years, occupied by Prof. Gerald Larson, former provost of University of California, Santa Barbara; funded the “Center for Dharma Studies”, at the Claremont Lincoln University; and organized a major International academic conference on the “Life & legacy of Swami Vivekananda”, in 2013, at UCI, among other initiatives.
DCF’s future initiatives include: a nation-wide campaign to raise $3.3 million dollars to establish Swami Dayananda Saraswati Chair in Sanatana Dharma Studies, in Berkeley, CA. The Chair will be the nucleus for establishing the “Graduate School of Hindu Dharma Studies”, in collaboration with Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Saylorsburg, PA; collaboration with the Art of Living Foundation to establish a Sri Sri Ravishankar Chair in the field of Applied Dharma at UCI; collaboration with the Kanchi Kamakoti Seva Foundation, (New Jersey), to establish the Adi Shankara Chair in the study of Vedanta and Sanskrit.
(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar)